Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Review: Deep Cover

A would-be West Coast Goodfellas, Deep Cover is a '90s crime drama informed by the Reagan/Bush years (specifically their darker side, and you'll note I didn't just say "dark" side, because then it's like "which one?"). Its political undertones don't really emerge until about an hour-plus in, and the degree to which they are unsuccessful is debatable. Whatever the case, they don't fully succeed, and the other plot points contribute to the sense that Deep Cover, whatever strengths it has, mostly misses the mark.

As the title implies, the protagonist cop (Laurence Fishburne) goes deep undercover to try and bring down a chain of coke dealers. Along the way he partners up with a lawyer (Jeff Goldblum) working for one of his targets, and the lines between crime and justice begin to blur, as they are oft wont to do. Before long he's facing down Latin American druglords and corrupt senators, though sadly without any McBain-esque one-liners or defenestrations.

Though Deep Cover undeniably has its moments, several elements annoyed me enough that I nearly gave up on it: the opening credits, the showy editing early in the film (yet also its disappearance after about forty minutes), the forced and peripheral romantic subplot, the relative infrequency of Jeff Goldblum scenes, the neighbor character whose existence felt unconnected to anything else (and therefore smacked of "Here's a young actor who we want to feature").

Things pick up a bit once Fishburne and Goldblum become full partners, and their interactions make Deep Cover worthwhile to fans of these two actors. What's neat about the Goldblum we get is that there's the expected wacky moments, but he also occasionally seems grounded and real. Fishburne, too, has never disappointed—he's young enough here that the credits call him "Larry," but he's making more of an effort than he did in (for example) Event Horizon, and since he's compelling even when he's not at 100%, he too is a reason to watch Deep Cover.

There aren't many others. A laudably bleak first hour starts to take plot turns that forebode an artificially happy ending—that or a more fitting "everybody dies" ending, but nothing in between. The former is what happens, and while the bad guys are bad enough that it's nice to see some comeuppance, the contorted and contrived story elements it took to get us there dull the enjoyment.

Noir-style narration throughout (from Fishburne) typifies the film's heavy-handed attempts at a distinctive style, and though most of the narration is pretty good, other moments in the script (like Fishburne's weird poem to Christian Guy near the end) feel nearly as pretentious as Cosmopolis, and in a way are even more problematic because Deep Cover tries to be both harshly real and mythically ambitious. The balance is never struck; the center cannot hold.

The fact that it ended in a courthouse cemented my growing sense that the main problem with Deep Cover is that it wants too hard to be a crime epic/morality play. I mean, the last line of narration is literally, "What would you do?" I'll tell you. I would roll my eyes.

Star Score: 2 out of 5

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